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WorldView: Reaching the boomer ‘base’ — and beyond

10/23/2012

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By Erich Bridges

RICHMOND, Va. —American churches are dealing with a challenge similar to the dilemma faced by the major political parties: How do you keep your “base” involved while appealing to a broader range of new, preferably younger, people?

It’s no secret that many U.S. church groups — including evangelicals — are struggling to keep their own kids from dropping out of church involvement as they finish school and enter adulthood. Attracting children, teens and young adults with no Christian background in an increasingly secular society is an even bigger task. The growing youth vacuum has caused concern, even panic, in plenty of pastors’ studies and denominational offices. Without new blood and a continuing infusion of young leaders, churches face a bleak future.

Meanwhile, the generational “base” of many churches is now the baby boomers, the 76-million-member cohort of Americans born between 1946 and 1964. Yep, I’m a loud-’n-proud member of that ever-vocal group. The oldest of us have surpassed traditional retirement age; the youngest are rapidly approaching the big 5-0. But 50 is a lot younger than it used to be — or so we like to think — as life expectancies lengthen and folks stay healthy and active for decades into what was once considered old age.   

If you’re a church leader trying to figure out how to keep us 50-somethings involved while reaching out to younger people, I recommend the advice of Matt Thornhill, one of the smartest guys around when it comes to all things boomer. He is president and founder of The Boomer Project, a marketing research group that studies the boomer generation and provides key data to corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, media outlets — and faith groups.

In a recent article, “Activating boomers to save churches,” Thornhill writes about a 56-year-old church member who organized a weekend mission trip to build ramps for wheelchair-bound people in a poverty-stricken area. The eight adults he recruited to participate in the project ranged in age from 24 to 72.

“Upon their return from the mission, the first question all of them, including the young adult men who went, asked was: ‘When can we do something like this again?’” Thornhill reports. “That question is music to the ears of anyone involved in running a church today. That’s because church membership and participation among the younger generations has fallen to the lowest levels ever, according to the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Surveys, conducted annually since 1972.

“Today only 18 percent of Millennials (those age 30 and under) attend church weekly. When Gen Xers were the same age, 21 percent attended church weekly. And 26 percent of boomers, when they were under 30, went to church weekly. Knowing this, many churches are scrambling to figure out how to engage young adults in new ways, attracting them to come to church. One strategy few seem to have mastered is to more fully engage those boomers already in the pews. In fact, we think churches that find new ways to ‘activate’ their boomer members will be successful at attracting and engaging younger members, too.”

Thornhill offers some tips for making that happen:

Start by finding boomers’ passions, not their “skills.”

“Too often churches, and other volunteer-dependent organizations, try to match skill sets with needs,” he says. “What drives most boomers to volunteer isn’t a desire to exercise their skills, but a desire to fulfill a passion. Boomers want to make an emotional investment of their time and talents, not strictly a rational one. Organizations that identify individual passions and then match them with specific needs are more likely to have full rosters of volunteers — of all ages.”

I can relate to that. The last thing I want to do in my free time is what I’ve been doing all day at work. I want to shoot hoops with needy kids or visit a refugee family. I have no real “skills” to do these things, but I want to do them.

Companies and advertisers understand this emotional need and turn it into cold cash. Americans buy cars and electronic devices to which they feel an emotional connection, not machines that get them from point A to point B or connect them to the Internet. Churches have an infinitely more meaningful “product” to offer, but they hesitate — or are ashamed — to think in such terms. Get over it. Don’t let the world grab all the time, energy and passion of people so desperate for meaning in their lives that they invest inanimate objects with mystical significance. (Didn’t the prophets of old call that idolatry?)     

Engage them in short-term missions, at least at first.

“The success of Habit for Humanity in getting thousands of homes built over the past 20 years is rooted in the ‘packaging’ of their mission,” Thornhill observes. “Rather than trying to engage people to support their overall goal of creating housing for those who need a helping hand, they instead focus on a specific project for a specific family.”

Commitment to long-term ministries that transform communities and cultures, whether across town or across the globe, will come in time. But first give boomers, especially men, something short, sweet and specific to do, start to finish. Not talk about. Not form a committee to consider. Do.

Answer the question: “What’s in it for me?”

Yes, I know. That’s not the question we’re supposed to ask. We are created to worship God, love Him and serve Him. But we boomers have always thought it’s all about us, right? Our children aren’t all that different. Start with us where we are, then challenge us to be and do something greater than ourselves.

Equip boomers to be cross-generational mentors.

Believe it or not, “young adults today report that they genuinely like boomers,” says Thornhill. “Thanks to the strong and close relationships between Millennials and their parents, many young adults today seek out mentors among boomer-age adults. Churches should foster and encourage cross-generational projects and missions. Especially if the participants come together around a shared passion. Age doesn’t matter, passion does.”

Boomers want to feel what they are doing is significant and life changing. Millennials want to be part of something real and authentic that brings them into relationship with people and needs around the world.

That sounds like the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

Erich Bridges is an IMB global correspondent.

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